Dishin’ That: Hard to disregard when a restaurant serves up disrespect

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Restaurants are breeding grounds for racism, sexism and, in general, disrespect for the beliefs and lifestyles of others.

Sometimes it’s woven into the banter of a dish dog and a cook. It can be heard in a heated group conversation between regulars at the bar. And worst of all, it can be directed at a customer.

I used to believe when a server made an inappropriate, yet harmless remark of any kind, it could be attributed to innocent ignorance or lack of education. Poor grammar for example, was recently heard at a pricey South Portland restaurant.

“The chef ain’t making that dish tonight” made me feel uncomfortable because I was passing judgement on both the server (for her chalkboard-scraping choice of words) and the house itself (for not having an advertised special).

My friends called her language a terrible representation of the place, and I silently went down the rabbit hole of employee training do’s-and-don’ts. The service overall was good, but we were peppered with “ain’ts” all evening. I left feeling conflicted about my own snobbery versus minimally expected professionalism.

But that’s Kid’s Menu stuff.

A bazillion years ago, when I was promoted to busser from the position of removing gum off the bottom of bar stools, I learned a cardinal restaurant rule that’s broken on a daily basis:

“Someday Sassy, when you get behind the bar, don’t discuss sex, religion or politics. With your big mouth, you’ll be in trouble.”

Too young and naive to fully grasp the message, I have rarely heard people talk about anything else. And believe it or not, most of the time, I keep my big mouth shut. I may roll my eyes and give someone the death stare for a homophobic slur, but that’s about it.

Usually, someone else will do the talking for me, and as our presidential elections progress, so does the hateful conversation. Most of it is legitimate fear and lots of frustration, but sadly, it isn’t innocent.

As a mother, I have instilled a sense of fair and equal treatment for all in my now 20-something daughters. Having done at least this one thing right, they are both good people, full of compassion and a desire to help others.

Akin to the Golden Rule, it’s a philosophy I carried over to many years of restaurant management. Seniority has its privileges, but all employees deserved good shifts. The first to request a day off would most likely get it, and, except for fancy titles, the playing field was level.

It was during those very days, I took an afternoon off to spend with my youngest daughter. We were going shopping for her bat mitzvah, and our time together was precious. Always a fashionista one step ahead of the latest trends, she made her own choices with taste and consideration for our limited budget.

Heading home, we stopped at a chain restaurant for a treat, and discussed her bat mitzvah preparation. She talked about studying tikkun olam, which is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to help perfect or repair the world. Speaking directly to my belief of fair and equal treatment for all, I was proud. She was beginning to walk the walk as a young adult.

After waiting at length, our server arrived.

“Wow,” she said. “Sorry it took so long. I had a group behind you and they all needed change. And the worst part is, they really Jewed me down hard on the tip.”

Stunned and furious, I said, “Excuse me?”

My daughter’s eyes grew wide and I became nauseous realizing this was her first overt experience with antisemitism. Thinking quickly, I calmed myself to embrace this as a teaching moment.

“We’re Jewish and we’re leaving,” I said firmly and quietly. “I’d like to speak to your manager.”

What ensued was a phone call to Portland’s Jewish Community Center, profuse verbal apologies from the chain’s corporate office, and an ice cream party with balloons and swag. I persistently insisted on a written apology to my daughter, which finally came when the company realized I wasn’t going to make a bigger stink over what one manager called “no big deal.”

In the grand scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t a big deal. However, when the server made a forced apology, I knew she saw nothing wrong with her comment.

Ten years later, my daughter is in college studying to make helping others her career. Living on one of thousands of vulnerable campuses, I fear for her safety. I fear for her as a woman, as a Jew, and sadly, as an American.

However, I am equally as hopeful that no matter what the religious affiliation, country of origin or ideological belief, others will embrace tikkun olam.

We’re in this together people, so let’s tip heavily, and treat each other the way we want our children to be treated. And, while I broke the rules of avoiding politics and religion, I did omit sex from the mix.

Stay tuned.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

  • Jason Coombs

    Good for you! What really bothers me is someone who condones rude comments, justifying it because their the race/religion being insulted. My example is a Doctor, yes medical doctor( in other words highly educated) who told me how his friend asked him if he knew the difference between Jews and Santa Claus? I won’t post the answer because it still makes me angry. When I asked him if he would like to visit the Katz Center at UMA to gain some perspective on his people and what they suffered, he responded that ” people have learned and it won’t happen again.” Since there have been and currently are genocides still happening, I was shocked. Needless to say I have a different Dr. Maybe it’s the fact I’m half Native American or that I am doing a minor in Genocide, Holocaust and Human Rights studies but I’m angered by people condoning these comments. It’s not ok, never had been, never will be. Hats off to you and thank you for not letting it go.

    • No MA’AM

      The problem in our society is folks like you and Natalie who purposely seek to be OFFENDED by harmless interactions.

    • No MA’AM

      You and Ms. Ladd are what’s wrong with society: people perpetually offended by harmless actions.

      (And before you call the PC Police regarding my username. It’s a JOKE. A spin from the sitcom “Married with Children.” Of course any expression which you and Ms. Ladd deem offensive needs to be censored though, right?)

  • Chew H Bird

    We should all be upset at the situation you described. However I will add that I have family members who are Jewish and they love to use the exact same insulting terminology (and worse) whenever possible yet they become upset when a non-Jewish person says such things… While I do my best to treat everyone with respect it can be confusing for our young people if they receive mixed messages from their parents and friends.

    • No MA’AM

      I pity waitstaff who have to deal with folks like Ms. Ladd. I envision she looks for anything to complain about and if she doesn’t get her way, runs to management to throw down her power of writing fluff pieces for The Forecaster.

  • No MA’AM

    It’s also hard to disregard a print outlet who serves disrespect to those advertising with them. This woman is hands down the most pretentious classified coordinator I’ve ever dealt with!

  • No MA’AM

    This woman is one of the most pretentious individuals I’ve ever dealt with when advertising. (She is an employee of The Forecaster and manages Classified Advertising.) Discovering this piece now explains it. She’s another one of these “seeking to be OFFENDED, my LIBERAL view is absolutely superior” types.

    You poor, poor snowflake! After eating at a self described PRICEY establishment — where you were ‘peppered’ with plausibly a transplant using a term that unintentionally rolls off tongue from growing up elsewhere — you needed a safe space because a word you didn’t like was uttered by more than likely a low wage worker.